Social Workers and Independent Experts in Child Protection Decision Making: Messages from an Intercountry Comparative Study

Jonathan Dickens (University of East Anglia), Jill Berrick (UC Berkely), Tarja Pösö (University of Tampere) and Marit Skivenes (University of Bergen) (2016)

Published in British Journal of Social Work, 2016.

This paper draws on an international comparative study of social work decision making in cases that are on the edge of care order proceedings, involving child protection workers from Finland, Norway, England and the USA (California). It focuses on workers’ responses in an online questionnaire to questions about the use of independent experts to inform their decisions about whether or not to take a case to court. All the countries try to avoid taking cases to court if possible, but the ways they do this vary considerably. The findings show the different meanings and implications that the request for an independent assessment has in the different systems. Workers’ views reflect the roles and tasks that independent experts have in the different countries; and these in turn reflect their distinctive child protection systems and wider child welfare approaches. The paper offers a starting point for reflection about one’s own system, and suggests that the well-known distinction between family support and child protection models should not be seen as a simple binary categorization, but rather as a complex, contingent and contested continuum.